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RoWINg to Illinois - Opponent Preview

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Lovie Smith’s beard has been the best thing about Illinois’ season so far

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have won their last three consecutive games against the Illinois Fighting Illini, and claimed victory six of their last seven matchups.

Will Saturday follow that trend?

God I hope so.

Were they any good last year?

Record: 2-10 (0-9, 7th B1G West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 118th

Nope.

What about this year?

Record: 3-5 (1-4, Tied-5th B1G West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 114th

Nope.

Can they score on offense?

The Fighting Illini are talented on offense and it starts with junior running back Reggie Corbin, who is having a breakout season. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of his last four games, and is currently averaging eight yards per carry on the season. Not only is he the team’s leading rusher with 739 yards, but he has also accounted for seven of their 22 offensive touchdowns. Illinois will typically spell Corbin with sophomore running back Mike Epstein, but his status is up in the air after missing the Maryland game with injury. Expect to see more of sophomore Ra’Von Bonner if Epstein is sidelined for Saturday.

The question of who will be handing the football to Corbin is an open question. Grad transfer A.J. Bush, Jr. got the starting nod to start the reason but his grip on the position has slipped, with freshman M.J. Rivers pulling even. Rivers seems to have the better arm, but Bush is more of a dynamic runner who can extend plays. He has 71 carries for 345 yards and three touchdowns this season. Both are completing over 50 percent of their passes and have combined for six passing touchdowns and six interceptions up to this point in the season.

Rivers started the game against Maryland and left with a concussion — courtesy of former teammate Tre Watson, who was ejected for targeting and wore a “Kings of LittyvILLe” shirt during pregame warm-ups — so I’m not sure if he’ll be ready by Saturday.

With the lack of consistency at the quarterback position, I’m not quite sure what to make of their receiving corps. Junior wideout Trenard Davis seems to be their most consistent contributor, leading the team with 25 receptions and 255 receiving yards, but no touchdowns. No one else has reached 20 receptions or 200 receiving yards this season.

The Illinois offensive line, like the rest of the team, is young, with only one senior in the starting five with three sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Even with a mobile quarterback under center, the Fighting Illinois are allowing 2.5 sacks per game.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Well, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned earlier this week, citing health reasons. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that the Fighting Illini defense ranks near the bottom nationally in nearly every statistical category this season. Head coach Lovie Smith will assume defensive coordinator duties for the remainder of the season.

If I had to sum up the Illinois defense in one word — other than “bad” — it would be:

Like the Gophers, the Fighting Illini are relying on an influx of murderous millennials to rebuild their program and return to the glory days of Ron Zook and the Rose Bowl. Seven of their starters on defense are either freshmen or sophomores, and that number increases to 16 when you expand the scope to include their entire two-deep.

It has not worked out well so far this season.

Here is how the Illinois defense ranks nationally:

  • 118th in passing defense (287.5 yards allowed per game)
  • 112th in rushing defense (248.1 yards allowed per game)
  • 119th in scoring defense (37.6 points allowed per game)
  • 95th in tackles for loss (5.3 per game)
  • 111th in third down defense (44.8 opponent conversion percentage)
  • 71st in red zone defense (84.4 opponent scoring percentage)

Yikes.

To say their defense is susceptible to big plays would be a bit of an understatement. Last week against Maryland, the Fighting Illini gave up touchdowns of 54, 43, 25, 27, 43, 64, and 46 yards. We all remember how overmatched the Gopher defense looked against the Terps. Well, Illinois somehow managed to perform even worse.

The undersized defensive line for the Fighting Illini has been rendered inert, as evidenced by the fact that they rank 125th in stuff rate according to S&P+. And they haven’t been able to muster much of a pass rush, averaging less than two sacks per game. Sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree is their best edge rusher, with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.

Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, the lone starting senior on defense, is also tied for the team lead in tackles (66) and the team lead in interceptions (3). Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much help. The linebackers lack the athleticism to make big plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, and can’t seem to recover when they’re caught out of position.

The Illinois’ secondary might be the most green unit of their entire dysfunctional defense. Led by junior safety Stanley Green, the Fighting Illini have only two upperclassmen in their two-deep at the defensive back positions. It’s no surprise they’ve looked lost at times.

On a more positive note, the Fighting Illini are tied for 24th in the country with 15 turnovers forced. Thirteen of those turnovers have been interceptions, led by the aforementioned Phillips and true freshman cornerback Jartavius Martin.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

Nothing is assured with this Gophers squad, but I would hope they are capable of beating Illinois. Minnesota 34, Illinois 24.